It was called “the missing link;” the section of State Route 15 (SR-15) going through the City Heights community that never existed.
On February 20th, Bill Figge and the San Diego Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA) brought together a panel at the Caltrans District Office in San Diego to talk about the City Heights community’s decades long involvement in building the Route 15 Highway and the Rapid Bus Center Line Stations at “The Story of City Heights, Route 15, & the Center Line Rapid Bus Stations, with a Look to the Future.” This lunch event included a viewing of the mini-documentary “From Visions to Victory: City Heights and the SR-15” and a discussion panel. The panel was comprised of Stephan Alvarez, Jim Bliesner, Maria Cortez, Gustavo Dallarda, Jay Powell and Randolph Torres-Van Vleck.
The program started with Mr. Figge introducing the project and the people involved. Since community involvement has always been a large part of this project, this APA program was a continuation of that involvement, and getting the history and current issues of this project out to a larger audience.
Randolph Torres-Van Vleck, the Senior Program Manager for Transportation and Planning with the City Heights Community Development Corporation, introduced a documentary reviewing the forty years of issues that the community went through to keep the freeway from dividing their community. He called this project an “urban monument to city activists.”
Following the documentary, panel members discussed their involvement with the project and lessons learned. Stephan Alvarez, a Senior Landscape Architect with Caltrans, said that the Visions Project, a City Heights community group, was a catalyst for community engagement.
Caltrans Chief Deputy Gustavo Dallarda explained the issues with creating an at-grade transit center for the Center Line Project. He talked about pedestrian concerns that came with having the platforms in the center of the highway and drivers using the bus-only lanes.
Motorist infractions instigated a pilot project to paint the pavement red to discourage the non-bus use of these “bus-only” lanes.
Jim Bliesner, the chair of the Visions Steering Committee and the founder of City Heights, noted that while the ongoing engagement of the community is helping to mitigate issues, the project isn’t completely done. He believes more businesses are needed and more art should be up and available to the community.
Former City Heights Community Development Corporation Executive Director Jay Powell, agreed with Mr. Bliesner and said that “this project is not done, this community doesn’t stop.”
Maria Cortez, a long-time City Heights transit advocate and community leader, commented that the community was given many promises that weren’t kept in the end. They were promised eight blocks of covered freeway, and were only given one, and many of the details, artwork, and vegetation that were supposed to be included with the project never came to fruition.
The panel rounded out with Mr. Torres-Van Vleck, who commented on the culture of resilience in City Heights, and that raising the profile on issues like the SR-15 and City Heights can make these projects more likely to happen.
The discussion was then opened to questions from the audience. These questions included who maintains the covered section of the freeway and any future community plan updates for the Mid-City Community Plan.
As an emerging Planner, I believe that this project, and everything that has been involved to make it to happen, shows what good can come of communities being involved in the planning process.